There was nothing in the mountaineering manual that mentioned anything about having to use a communal bucket for high altitude human waste. Nevertheless, here at fourteen thousand feet on America’s highest peak I was competing with other team members not to be the last person to tie into our rope for that day’s climb.
You see, that distinction came with a prize. In order to motivate us to roll out, attach to our 60 lb. sleds and shoulder 50 lb. packs, our team leader incentivized this chore by adding another one for the last out of the tent. I won’t use the colloquial name we called it here but hauling that bucket duty always fell upon Dr. Dan Walters. We just figured he was so used to having people wait on him back at his medical practice, this was karma.
On Denali in those days, we were allowed to chuck those putrid contents deep into nearby crevasses, provided they were at least 30 feet deep. With an eight-person team, everyone had a job. Shoveling snow to build igloo walls was every bit as grueling as ascending while roped to three of your buddies. Not much way to train for that in Tennessee so I took a mountaineering course in Utah as required before tackling “The Great One”. While hanging down a cliff face my guide instructed me to prussic my way back up the rope. Monster slits on the Kahiltna glacier had claimed many an aspiring mountaineer. He knew where I was headed.
Our summit day was epic. After fourteen days of climbing and weather, a break in the clouds found our group ascending the Autobahn and rounding Washburn’s Thumb. As Denali’s summit came into view, the clouds broke showcasing the entirety of the Alaska range. I don’t know if we could see Russia, but Sara Palin’s house was fair game for sure.
Dr. Dan was first on our rope as we raced down the mountain in advance of lenticular clouds. Sixteen hours post summit, our team dropped from twenty to eleven thousand feet when he disappeared from view as if sucked into a vacuum. Before my brain could register the content of this horrific scene, I was jerked face first, eating mouthfuls of snow as we headed for the same hole that just swallowed our friend. By the time we arrested Dan’s fall, he was dangling 30 feet down and teammate Jared McFaddin was feet from the precipice.
Now all that prussic training seemed rather relevant as we rigged up a system to haul the good Dr. and his sled from the bottomless abyss. Not before several comments about dodging possible bucket contents were bandied about. Mountain climbing is more than just ropes and cold. That mountaineering course had suddenly paid off for us all.